Distillers, brewers, winemakers play big, giving role in communities

Scott Smith, one of the partners who own and run Outer Banks Distilling in Manteo, loves his job.

That’s no surprise, after all. He makes rum, and lots of people are buying it.

But he and his partners do other things, too. Things that mean a lot to a lot of people. He does things for people who don’t drink rum, or even drink at all.

Smith builds playgrounds.

The Manteo distillers created a new rum — Angels’ Share — and, in partnership with celebrity chef Vivian Howard, put all proceeds from the sale of their new concoction toward the reconstruction of a dilapidated playground in Dare County. They made a party of it, and it worked. Howard signed her new book. Sam Jones donated a whole hog. Lost Colony Brewery poured beer, and Greentails Seafood of Nags Head did its thing.

“As a business we’ve done really well, and the community has been insanely supportive,” Smith says.

Restaurants along the Outer Banks serve his Kill Devil Rum, and ABC stores, as well as ABC administrator Bob Hamilton, have supported Smith’s and his partners’ efforts.

Smith estimates 1,000 people showed up for the picnic, and sales of the rum — 372 bottles — raised $15,000, which all went to the county’s parks and rec department and the playground.

“Every last dime,” Smith says. “We’re going to be doing this every year, every summer, picking a North Carolina charity. We want to do something back for this community, not just gaining attention for our rum, but to be good citizens.”

Smith and his partners aren’t outliers. Not by any stretch.

Certain lawmakers bash drinking, telling stories of how it has destroyed families and ripped communities from their roots. Some of that is true. Liquor in North Carolina has a long and beleaguered history. We all know that, as certain lawmakers are quick to remind us, should we start to forget.

What gets lost in talk of liquor is brotherhood and community, ideas that distillers create and nurture.

The idea of a civil society.

Take Southern Grace Distilleries in Mt. Pleasant, which uses proceeds from its products to help fund animal shelters, breast cancer research, Habitat for Humanity, the work of local firefighters, among many other recipients.

“When we started our distillery we made a commitment to make a contribution to charity for every bottle we sold,” says Leanne Powell, Southern Grace president. “We also host charitable events at Whiskey Prison, and in just the last year have donated more than $3,000 in tours and merchandise to local charity auctions and events. We feel an obligation to not just make a good whiskey, but to do good for our community at the same time.”

At TOPO Distillery in Chapel Hill, giving is part of the culture.

“We donate a lot of tours and spirits to nonprofits throughout the year,” says spirit guide Esteban McMahan. “Maybe 100 a year; we stopped tracking those after the first year.”

But here are a few: Foundation Fighting Blindness, Urban Ministries of Wake County, Triangle Day School, Triangle Raptor Center, Meals on Wheels Wake County, and Ronald McDonald House.

“We’ve also been one of the lead sponsors for the TerraVita Food & Drink Festival … which is committed to spreading the gospel of sustainable food and drink.

“We also go to a lot of nonprofit fundraisers and make cocktails for their events. Most events are worth around $2,000, if you take into account the spirits at retail, mixers, and bar service.”

Admittedly, this is an embarrassingly brief and incomplete list of examples of generosity from a community that includes hundreds of distillers, brewers, and winemakers.

As McMahan told: “You get the idea.”

In reality it’s an exhaustive list, which, maybe, those who rail against the industry can spend a minute or two taking in.

Sadly, in North Carolina, beset by arcane rules and, in certain corners, inflexible opposition to alcohol, many still won’t.